Recently, I talked about the Red Sox offense and how they can and have been surviving with a David Ortiz-type presence in the lineup. The main takeaway is that they have a lot of good hitters who are capable of hitting like great ones for stretches during the year. Each of those stretches goes a long way towards making this offense tick. With all of that being said, though, they have been missing the production they should be getting from their best player over the last couple of months. Mookie Betts simply hasn’t been himself at the plate. Now, he still provides a ton of value with his glove and on the bases, so the floor of his production is incredibly high, but the Red Sox could use a lot more from him at the plate.
Part of the disappointment around Betts’ season offensively is certainly based on the high expectations we all had for him coming into the year. Despite all of the perceived struggles, his .265/.341/.448 line is still above-average as it comes out to a 104 wRC+. That comes despite a .267 batting average on balls in play that is well below his true-talent level. Of course, it’s been a tale of two halves for Betts. Before the All-Star break, Betts was walking more than he struck out and put up a .272/.351/.490 (117 wRC+) line while the second-half has seen a .246/.311/.328 line.
There are a few things that stand out here for the All-Star outfielder. Plate discipline has always been his calling card, but it’s taken a step back in the second half. Granted, he was coming from a position where this was such a strength that even a fairly significant downgrade leaves him with better plate discipline numbers than both. Still, he’s looked a lot more mortal since the break with a 17 percent strikeout rate and a nine percent walk rate. It’s worth noting that he’s cut his strikeout rate by two percentage points and raised his walk rate by 2 1⁄2 points in the month of August. Still, he’s clearly had a little more trouble making contact of late.
Although watching Betts strike out as often as he is has been a bit disconcerting, it’s not really the biggest issue. Instead, the lack of power that has come from the outfielder has been stranger to watch. After a first half in which he put up a .218 Isolated Power (league-average this year has been .171), Betts has a mark of just .082 in the second half. That’s Billy Hamilton-level power, for context. There is a theory that has been thrown around by many that some of this has to do with the lack of Ortiz. The crux of the theory is that Betts is now the focal point of the lineup, and so pitchers have been approaching him differently now that they don’t have to worry about the legendary bat joining him in the lineup. There’s probably some truth to this, but it’s worth remembering that this wasn’t happening so much in the first half.
Still, there are some changes in how pitchers are approaching him. Specifically, there has been an adjustment since the start of July. If you look at the side-by-side comparison of his early-season zone plot and his late-season zone plot, you will see a pattern on how pitchers are attacking him. To put it simply, they appear less likely to come to the inner part of the zone against Betts.
If you’ve watched Betts since he’s reached the majors, you’ll agree that this is a smart move by opposing pitchers. The young right fielder feasts on these pitches with some of the quickest hands in baseball. He can turn on inside pitches as well as anyone in the league. In the second half, you’ll notice that he’s not pulling the ball nearly as much (38 percent pull rate compared to a 46 percent rate in the first half), and that’s playing a major role in his dropping power numbers. He’s also having trouble simply squaring the ball up, with a hard-hit rate falling from 37 percent to 29 percent and a slight increase in ground ball rate. Unsurprisingly, this run has been accompanied by a decrease in fastballs being thrown by his opponents.
The last thing I want to mention gets back to the plate discipline we discussed above. As you can see from the numbers I mentioned there, Betts is still walking at an above-average rate. That would suggest his plate discipline is still strong, and at times it is. However, it would be a mistake to simply look at his walk rate and say his plate discipline is totally fine. That’s a mistake John Farrell made to reporters before Tuesday’s game.
While his walk numbers are fine, Betts has seen some fluctuation in his pitch selectivity. He’s talking enough pitches to draw some free passes, but he’s also making enough contact on these bad pitches that it’s affecting the quality of his contact. As you can see in the graph below, there is a real correlation between how often he swings at pitches out of the zone (as indicated by the red line showing O-Swing%) and his power. The graph is courtesy of Fangraphs’ split tool and shows his rolling ten-game samples.
In the end, it’s still hard to believe that Betts won’t turn it around. he’s simply too talented of a hitter to think this is who he is now. He’s shown over his professional career that the power is for real and that his bat speed isn’t going away anytime soon. He’ll have to adjust to the new approach pitchers are taking with him — whether it’s due to the lack of Ortiz in the lineup or not -- but he’s a smart enough player to do so. The Red Sox offense is rolling right now without Betts’ power in the lineup, but if they are to go as far as they hope to in 2017, Betts will need some big swings along the way.